Click photo to enlarge

For local crab fishermen, it's all about unity.

United, they can keep their boats docked and try to negotiate a higher price for their product. Divided, they will fall like dominoes, and set out on the water ready to take whatever buyers are offering.

With the season having opened a week ago, negotiations are currently at a standstill. In fact, according to some, it's hard to even call what's going on negotiations.

”The buyers have offered $2.50 (a pound), we've asked $3, and those numbers haven't changed,” said local fisherman Dave Bitts.

Meanwhile, fishermen in Oregon and Washington, where regulators postponed the season because tests showed Dungeness crab there to be too small, are readying to start fishing Dec. 15, adding a new layer of complexity to local negotiations.

Some version of this dance plays out every year, as fishermen and buyers work out a deal that sends the local fleet onto the water for a week or two of furious crab fishing. The process works like this: The Fisherman's Marketing Association negotiates on the part of the fishermen to strike a deal, which would then be put to a vote of all fishermen with a commercial crab permit in the region.

On the other side of the table sit the buyers. Because a company called Pacific Seafood handles about half the crab inventory on the West Coast, it is the sole buyer at the proverbial negotiating table. Other wholesalers simply defer to Pacific Seafood, following its lead.

Then there's a complex interworking of markets and supply.

Crab fishermen south of Point Arena in Mendocino have been fishing since Nov. 15, and are fetching $3 a pound for their product, which can now be found throughout the state, including in local markets. There are also fleets in Oregon and Washington ready to head out on the water as soon as Dec. 15.

”Then, timing and coordination and market concerns come into play, and we don't know how all that is going to work out,” Bitts said.

The crab they haul in will be used in a variety of ways: sold in local markets, frozen for sales later in the year, or boxed up and shipped overnight to markets in China and Hong Kong, where it fetches a hefty price.

Surely playing a factor for Pacific Seafood is the fact that the company has to hire people to process the bounty of crab it brings in. Because a good portion of the crab caught in Oregon comes down to Eureka for processing, some have said they think the company wants to hold out to synch the seasons. Otherwise, it runs the risk of incurring additional expenses by hiring processing crews only to let them go and rehire them again in the course of a few weeks.

”It's all a business decision,” said local fisherman D. Ray Pemberton.

Messages left for numerous representatives at Pacific Seafood seeking comment for this story were not returned by deadline.

Pemberton, who doesn't have a seat at the negotiating table but runs a boat out of Eureka, said 50 cents might seem like a trivial difference in price, but it's not -- especially when one considers crab fishermen make the bulk of their income in just two or three weeks of fishing.

”When we bring in large loads of crab, that 50 cents turns into considerable folding money,” he said.

Pemberton and other local fishermen said they think the $3 per pound is a fair price. It's what fishermen off the central coast started out with, though they're now fetching $3.25 a pound as the stalemate here drags on. The $3 price also matches the historic record starting price set a couple seasons ago, but is 50 cents more than last year's starting price.

A key factor for fishermen moving forward will be their ability to stick together, Pemberton said. Because there's a finite amount of crab out there, fishermen can't afford to keep their boats docked if others are out setting crab traps. So, if one fisherman breaks the line and agrees to fish for $2.50 the rest will likely follow suit.

”If a boat goes fishing, then it's just a chain reaction, and we all have to go,” Pemberton said, adding that fishermen are currently working phone trees to ease concerns and keep everyone docked. “(Thursday), a couple of boats got pretty anxious.”

The boats, which Pemberton described as “big heavy hitters,” stayed tied up. The rest of the fleet followed suit. Now, fishermen are touring the docks, making calls and keeping eyes out, according to Pemberton, in an effort to keep the fleet patient and unified.

But as eyes shift to Oregon and Washington, where state mediated negotiations are ready to start up next week, that unity might be a bit harder to maintain. Last year's season launched locally at $2.50 a pound after boats up north started fishing at that price.

”Last year, they went, so everybody went,” Pemberton said, adding that, this year, he's hoping for a bit more unity. “We have to all team up as fishermen.”

Local fishermen said it's important to remember that their costs are rising, that gas is $4 a gallon, labor costs are up, and they're the ones who shoulder the risk of going out on the water. Pemberton said it's also important to remember that fishermen and their crews have mortgages to meet, college funds to contribute to and families to support.

Pemberton said he feels the local community is behind the crab fishermen and their push for what they believe is a fair price.

”That feels good,” he said. “But, really, what feels good is when you look on your back deck and you see six, or eight or 10,000 pounds of crab piled up, and you know you're going to get a good price. That feels really good.”

Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or tgreenson@times-standard.com. Follow him on Twitter @ThadeusGreenson.